Critical Mass: What’s your opinion?

Dearest cycling community of Wellington,

Back in January Critical Mass (CM) Wellington’s (re)founding father Tom Elliot personally charged me with the mission of keeping CM going in Wellington, after he left town on an exciting round-the-world cycling and sailing adventure.

Thus far I have failed miserably in my task.

If you are not familiar with Critical Mass, it is an international event in which cyclists gather to ride collectively with the aim of creating the required “critical mass” of bicycles necessary to assert our rights to the use of roads on equal measure with motorised vehicles.  This mass ride phenomenon began in 1992 in San Francisco and now occurs in more than 300 cities worldwide, generally on the last Friday of the month.

The Wikipedia article provides more information regarding the background and history of critical mass.

I moved to Wellington in 2010 and was unaware of any local critical mass events, until I saw a flyer for the October 2011 Wellington ride.  I participated in the ride, enjoyed it thoroughly  and continued to do so regularly until November 2012, missing only 1 ride during that time! Sadly, since December 2012, CM has ceased happening in reliable numbers.

My understanding is that previous to the re-founding of CM in Wellington by Tom Elliot in 2011, there had been a CM tradition in Wellington that received the expected negative criticism from the motorist community, however surprisingly it also received some negative criticism from the cycling community.  Apparently (again this is just my understanding from what I have been told) the methods used by some more radical cyclists during the rides was viewed as reflecting poorly on the Wellington cycling community.  For this reason, and perhaps others of which I have not been made aware, CM in Wellington was halted for some time (a few years?), until it was rejuvenated mid-2011.

Of course, as cyclists, we all know how important it is to be responsible advocates for cycling, and how the individual cyclist’s behaviour reflects upon the cycling community as a whole.    We also know how important the wider perception of cycling and cyclists is when it comes to advocating for and implementing improvements cycling infrastructure, as this requires support from the public and the city council.

To oversimplify the scenario, if one person rides their bike around like an asshole, the motorists think we’re all assholes, and the city council will never give us bike lanes, because we all look like irresponsible menaces to safety and good conduct.

However, there is a distinction between riding safely and comfortably, and what motorists expect the “rules” for cycling to be.

Irrespective of this tangent (which I hope may provoke an interesting discussion) CM does have a reputation for using some aggressive, anti-motorist tactics to promote cycling.  However, in my experiences participating in CM rides in 3 different countries, I can say that by far, the Wellington CM rides were the most polite, and least aggressive or intrusive to motorists or pedestrians.  This is perhaps because of that keen awareness of our sensitive situation as cyclists in Wellington.  I have also had discussions and experiences with cycling New Zealanders that made me aware of how my perceptions, as an American, differ to those of the locals.  But anyway, I digress, this was not meant to be a diatribe on the cultural factors affecting cyclists’ behaviours, but on the merits of advocating for the cycling community in a responsible and enjoyable manner.

I have conducted some informal surveys of my acquaintances regarding resuming monthly critical mass rides in Wellington.  The responses have varied.  Most of those who have previously participated are interested in participating again, however some had complaints about the format and function of CM.

In the past Civic Square has been our meeting point, and we have more or less stuck to one route through the CDB, along Victoria street, down Vivian, along Cambridge Tce, up Courtney Place, and ending with the traditional CM “bike lift” near the bucket fountain on Cuba Street.  We have not aggressively employed traditional CM techniques such as “corking“, but rather tried to remain as a group and be aware of lights and pedestrian crossings.  However, phrases such as “Ride your bike!” or “Burn fat not oil!” were shouted alongside choruses of bike bells to bring awareness to the activist nature of the ride.

(Better picture coming soon…)

While personally I found this a good balance, others did not.  For me personally, I enjoy the social and activist aspects of CM.  I don’t normally participate in group rides unless they have a specific goal or objective other than “just to ride” or for fitness; I ride my bike to get where I need to go.  CM isn’t about riding for fitness or endurance, we ride very slowly for about 45 minutes and only go about 3 kms, though of course you do get out and moving on a bicycle.  CM began as a way for commuters who gathered in the city centre to begin their rides home together.  I believe it’s about making people aware of cyclists and an opportunity for cyclists to socialise.   After our rides we would often go to the nearby Leftbank for some noodles or a beer.  Some of the participants in my informal survey found the rides to be too tame – they wanted CM to be a vehicle (excuse the pun) for aggressive cycling activism.

I always enjoyed participating in CM and I am overcome with guilt for not having actively tried to keep it going over the last 6 months.  However, with this aim, I would like to solicit the feedback and opinions of the wider cycling community with regards to the future of critical mass in Wellington.

Some questions to consider:

  • Is it worthwhile to try to keep the last Friday of the month (5:30 pm meet, 6 pm ride) CM ride going?
  • What is the message Wellington CM should be trying to communicate to the public?
  • How do we best communicate this message?
  • What is your motivation to participate (or not participate) in CM? Is it for the social/community aspect?  Activism?  Exercise? Some other reason?
  • How should CM riders behave with regards to traffic lights, pedestrian crossings, etc.?
  • What kind of routes should be taken?
  • Any other feedback/comments…

Please post your comments below.

Another barrier to me taking a more active role in the organisation of CM (albeit self-imposed) is that fact that I am not a Facebook user and do not have access to the Wellington CM group or event pages.  In addition, I am trying to finish my PhD thesis within the next 6 weeks.  Is anybody keen to help out with organisational responsibilities and Facebook skillz?

Yours sincerely,

Nicole M. Gaston

6 thoughts on “Critical Mass: What’s your opinion?

  1. I’ve taken part in many CM rides in Wellington and overseas. There’s been a few this year, including in April.
    My understanding of the CM ethos is that it has no particular agenda, leaders or designated route.
    There’s a whole lot of cycling advocacy, rides, groups and subcultures in Wellington cycling and CM is a minor player, with 5-15 riders each time.
    I’m happy to turn up and ride from time to time.


  2. To make cycling safer in New Zealand we need better infrastructure. No doubt about it. But to get this, we need numbers supporting it. More cyclists on the roads already improves safety. More ‘human’ or everyday cyclists will help raise awareness by normalising riding a bike. Groups like Frocks on Bikes do amazing things in an effort to get everyday people wearing everyday clothes on their bikes. It’s the reason I joined them. If we strive to have an environment like Amsterdam or Copenhagen, we need to encourage such an environment. Forcing people to wear hi-vis and helmets, in addition to investing in their bike, will put some off. As Simon Kennett pointed out ( halfway down the comments ), they already have enough excuses, so why add to them?


  3. Rob Edward

    Hi Nicole.

    I have always seen CM as a counter productive idea.

    It seems to me that having a large group of cyclists (us), cycling around being “visible” to the motorists (them), reinforces that false dichotomy. Throw in some of the absurd militancy that I have (anecdotally) heard about and it’s a step backwards.

    That we are all just primates, using varying methods of getting about the place, gets lost when confrontation (albeit non aggressive) occurs. It then reduces to tribalism.

    I don’t know what it is, but there must be a better use of the time and energy afforded to CM.

    I would rather see a visible declaration of using cycling as a mode of transport away from the bikes.



  4. Simon Kennett

    I’ll make this short, since my last couple of comments have disappeared into the interweb for some reason. If it posts OK, I’ll contribute more.

    I attended CM fairly regularly in Wellington from about 1996-2006, and was motivated to ride as a form of activism. It started off as a peaceful monthly ride, but eventually became more and more militant, with skateboarders and walkers joining in and really slowing the pace down to a crawl. It kinda became an exercise in blocking other traffic (of all kinds) and the inevitable friction boiled over in shouting matched and thumping of car bonnets. Very counter-productive.

    More recent CM rides seem to have been much more friendly, but I still wonder if the timing is such that they are bound to rub people up the wrong way.


  5. Simon Kennett

    Also, I agree with Rob’s comment about CM being a form of tribalism. I think this is why CM works better in large cities.

    Wellington is so small that people who’ve lived here a long time tend to be pretty well connected to the wider community…there’s a good chance I might know the guy in the car 50m behind the CM bunch who really just wants to get home to read his kids some bedtime stories or meet up with some mates for a quiz night or get to the airport on time for a flight to a long-awaited holiday. Crawling along side-by-side at 5 km/hr seems a bit rude.

    Does CM win people over? Does it contribute to a culture change? Does it influence the decision-makers in a positive way? Nope.

    Is CM counter-productive? Does a ride of 15 people during rush hour really represent a kind of Marginal Mass? Does it make cycling look slow and somewhat anti-social? What are the people on the footpath and in the cars stuck behind the ride saying about cyclists? Are anti-cycling sentiments being entrenched?

    Would CM be more effective if it were run like a fun ride for everyday cyclists, in the weekend, on a fun course, with a wider range of people simply demonstrating how enjoyable and convenient cycling is as a mode of transport? I think so.


  6. Brigid van der Tol

    Hi Nicole,

    I absolutely to agree with Simon’s comments above. I have been watching a ride in Cape Town called Moonlight Mass ( which a friend of mine often goes on. This ride is simply a social ride held later in the evening so off peak traffic, and isn’t a crawl, but a manageable social ride, which I always think looks like such a fun thing to go along to. They ride a scenic route around a promenade area in Cape Town and then ride along one of the longest streets in the city (Long Street).

    According to their website, they are mindful of other road users, this is not about rubbing other road users up the wrong way, but about enjoying the sites of their city in moonlight on their bikes. Almost romantic… 🙂

    I really feel this is a much more constructive way of getting people involved in riding bikes and thus breaking down the bad image that cyclists seem to have.

    I think Simon is on the button with a ride being “in the weekend, on a fun course, with a wider range of people simply demonstrating how enjoyable and convenient cycling is as a mode of transport”

    I have often thought of joining the Critical Mass ride, but I am put off by the confrontational (and therefore I believe counterproductive) nature of the ride which I simply feel is about giving drivers the two fingers. Not all drivers have issues with cyclists, just like not all cyclists run red lights or ride like idiots. Why continue to cement the negative thinking when there may be an opportunity to bring them along for the fun!

    Anyway, thought this may be of interest…


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